China appears to be growing frustrated with North Korea’s behavior, perhaps to the point of changing its long-standing support for Pyongyang. As North Korea’s largest economic sponsor, Beijing has provided the North Korean regime with crucial aid for years and offered it diplomatic protection against the United States and other powers. To outsiders, China’s alliance with North Korea seems like a Cold War relic with little reason for persisting into the 21st century. However, Beijing’s continued support for Pyongyang is not rooted in shared ideology or past cooperation nearly as much as in China’s own security calculations.
Perhaps nothing sums up the modern relationship more effectively than the oft repeated comment that the two countries are “as close as lips and teeth.” Far from a statement of intense friendship, the completion of that Chinese aphorism — “When the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold” — highlights China’s interest in propping up the North Korean regime. North Korea serves as a buffer state for China’s northeast, and though Pyongyang can exploit that need, the North Korean leadership harbors no illusion that China is truly interested in the survival of any particular North Korean regime so long as Beijing can keep its buffer.
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Whether China is seriously considering a change in relations with North Korea, ties between the two countries are shaped as much by geography and history as they are by choice. The Korean Peninsula abuts China’s northeast, along Manchuria. The Yalu River separates North Korea from China, and the area on the western edge of the border functions as a gateway between the two countries along an otherwise largely mountainous border. The geography of the Korean Peninsula, as seen several times in the past, offers little resistance to rapid military maneuvers from north to south or vice versa.
At times, this border area was a troublesome spot for Chinese empires, which had to contend with various invaders and growing Korean military strength. At other times, the peninsula served as a conduit for Chinese culture to Japan — and intermittently as the main highway for military confrontation between China and Japan. During the 19th century and the expansion of European and American activity in Asia, if foreign countries had dominated Korea, it would have further undermined China’s already faltering national security. And during the Cold War, North Korea provided a strategic buffer against U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea, a role it still plays today.
A History of Antagonism
China and North Korea draw heavily from history in assessing each other’s strategic positions, as well as their own. China sees North Korea as a useful buffer but one that can draw China into wars and potentially weaken or at least delay China’s attempts at achieving its own strategic imperatives. North Korea sees China as a necessary partner, one that through careful manipulation will continue to fund and protect North Korea, but always with the risk of North Korea losing control of its own fate to the Chinese. These are not new ideas — they draw from centuries of interactions, and both countries take different lessons from that history.
The North Koreans trace their lineage and in part their national philosophy to the Koguryo Kingdom, which lasted from 37 B.C. to 668 A.D., was centered in what is now North Korea and stretched well into modern-day China’s northeast. During the seventh century, one Chinese dynasty wore itself out trying to expand into Koguryo, and that dynasty’s successor was successful only after briefly allying with the dominant kingdom in what is now South Korea. The Chinese dynasties’ moves against the Koguryo Kingdom reflected their concerns about having a strong power on China’s frontier, a concern that continues to this day. China and both Koreas still have brief academic spats over the historical affinity of Koguryo, with China claiming it was a Chinese dynasty, in part to justify Beijing’s continued oversight of North Korea but also to challenge any potential reunified Korea’s claims to the ethnic Korean population that still resides on the Chinese side of the Yalu River.
The Korean Peninsula was also used as an invasion route between China and Japan. During the 13th century, after more than two decades of conflict, the Yuan Dynasty finally beat the ruling Korean kingdom into submission and used Korean shipbuilders, soldiers and supplies to launch two assaults against Japan, both of which ultimately failed. The Japanese, following unification under Toyotomi Hideyoshi some three centuries later, launched a large-scale invasion of Korea on their way to Ming China. The six-year war highlighted one of the weaknesses of Korea’s defense — the Japanese moved rapidly up the peninsula, quickly taking Seoul, Kaesong and Pyongyang. Ming forces rushed troops into Korea to block the rapidly advancing Japanese, who had all but brushed aside the unprepared Korean forces.
The combination of Chinese cannon and mobile troops from southern China, plus the ability of the Korean navy to cut Japanese supply lines, turned the tide, but throughout the intervention, the Chinese and Koreans found little to agree upon. Korea’s ruling Chosun Kingdom saw itself as defending Ming China from the Japanese aggressors and demanded the utter defeat of the Japanese and if possible their subjugation. The Koreans further feared China would use the opportunity to leave its